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  • The Sounds of Ozarks Religion, Beyond the Bible Belt

    Three Black people in matching black outdits sing into a single microphone on stage. The youngest of them has both hands raised as if about to clap, almost in a prayer position. Behind them, a beam of bright light comes through a tent opening.

    Pastor Leroy (left) and Annie Williams (center) founded Emmanuel House of Praise in Poplar Bluff, Missouri, as a non-denominational, multicultural church. It’s the home base of their family gospel group, with daughter Latoya (right) and son Dewayne.

    Photo by Sonya Pencheva, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives

    The Ozarks have been called an Evangelical Epicenter, the Buckle of the Bible Belt, and, only partially in jest, Six Flags Over Jesus. Given the numerical strength of Baptists, Pentecostals, and a plethora of nondenominational evangelical churches, the region comes by these labels honestly.

    Known as the Queen City of the Ozarks, Springfield, Missouri, is also the headquarters of the Assemblies of God and the home of televangelist Jerry Falwell’s alma mater. Not to be outdone, the Arkansas Ozarks boasts a sixty-five-foot-tall statue of Jesus (dubbed the Christ of the Ozarks) and the corporate headquarters of Walmart, a company known for its mixture of piety and commerce. Home to “I’ll Fly Away” composer Albert E. Brumley, the region was also the birthplace of network television’s Ozark Jubilee, on which host Red Foley regaled viewers with his rendition of “Peace in the Valley.” Blessed with a rustic landscape and a reputation for country and gospel music, the “holy hills of the Ozarks” have drawn pilgrims from all over the nation, echoing an earlier generation of Methodist camp meetings and brush arbor revivals, outdoor services of preaching and singing which took place under a canopy of branches.

    While all of this is true, the evangelical songs of Zion do not begin to exhaust the sounds of Ozarks religion. My Missouri State University colleague David Embree calls the region a “haven for religious diversity.” Such diversity was on display in the months leading up to the 2023 Smithsonian Folklife Festival. In preparation for the Festival’s Ozarks program, a who’s who of the region’s religious leaders gathered on Zoom to talk about their own faiths and the faiths of others. Dubbed the Religion and Spirituality Committee, this gathering of Ozarks clergy and laypeople included representatives of Christian, Hindu, Jewish, and Muslim communities. The descendants of English, Scots-Irish and German Americans were there, as well as African American, Asian American, Cherokee, and Latino community leaders. Along with white Baptists and Pentecostals, the Christian participants included representatives of liberal Protestantism, Orthodox Christianity, and Mexican evangelicalism.

    On stage, a white woman leads others in a row behind her in song, one hand raised in the air.
    Beverly Meinzer (center) leads a session of shape-note singing with members of Mennonite church choirs from Maryland (pictured) and the Brockwell Gospel Music School in Violet Hill, Arkansas, on the Festival’s Ralph Rinzler Main Stage.
    Photo by Sonya Pencheva, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives
    Two Asian women sit on stage, as the older speaks into a Folklife Festival microphone. She wears elaborate silver jewelry and black top and headdress with colorful embroidery.
    Shoua Vue (right) and daughter Xue Lee-Vang speak about Hmong farming and herbalism practices which they continue in Gentry, Arkansas.
    Photo by Sonya Pencheva, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives

    Such diversity should not come as a surprise to long-time observers of the Ozarks. While stereotyped as an outpost of “red state religion,” the region has in fact been home to a variety of religious groups. It may come as a surprise to learn of an Ozarker with close ties to the Transcendentalist movement, who helped Henry David Thoreau build his cabin and attended the funeral of Ralph Waldo Emerson. It may come as a surprise to learn that a leader of the Theosophical Society and an advocate of yoga and Kabbalah founded a library in the tiny burg of Osceola, Missouri. It may come as a surprise that the African American mystic Howard Thurman made two trips to the Ozarks in the 1920s, holding forth at an interracial camp near Branson. It may come as a surprise that a shrine to the Virgin Mary draws thousands of Vietnamese Catholics to Carthage, Missouri, every summer for Marian Days. It may come as a surprise, but all of these things are true.

    While a drop in the proverbial bucket of the region’s evangelical baptistery, such religious diversity should not be forgotten. We should not forget that Springfield’s first church service took place in a cabin built, involuntarily, by enslaved African Americans. We should not forget the thousands of Cherokee who passed through the Arkansas and Missouri Ozarks on the Trail of Tears, or the communities they built in Oklahoma. We should not forget the “Syrian colony” that gathered along Springfield’s Boonville Avenue, a community that included both Christians and Muslims. We should not forget the atheist experiment of Liberal, Missouri, the town “without churches, saloons, or hell” that boasted streets named after Charles Darwin, Robert Ingersoll, and Thomas Paine. We should not forget the visits of Frederick Douglass and Emma Goldman to Springfield, nor the socialist Commonwealth College in Mena, Arkansas. We should not forget the existence of a Springfield synagogue before there ever was a Pentecostalism. We should not forget the use of a Qur’an to dedicate the Masonic Abou Ben Adhem Shrine (known informally as the Shrine Mosque, though it is not a mosque) in 1923, nor the Arabic inscription (“There is no God but Allah”) that appears on its exterior. We should not forget the founding of a real Islamic Center at the beginning of the twenty-first century.

    We shall not forget these things, and yet we shall also remember that some religious groups are more dominant than others in this region of megachurches and gospel music festivals. Such realities were evident to me as I witnessed a fusion of patriotism and piety at a massive Fourth of July celebration in the early 2000s and listened to gospel quartets sing in a Branson theme park. Such realities were also evident to the group of religious leaders and scholars who gathered on our Folklife Festival committee, including Ozarks historian Brooks Blevins and Dorothy Berry, an Ozarks native who currently serves as digital curator for the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. While bearing witness to the diversity of Ozarks religious life, the committee members were quick to point out the de facto establishment of evangelicalism within the larger region. Like my Missouri State colleague David Embree, the committee declared the Ozarks a haven for religious diversity and a Buckle of the Bible Belt.

    A church with a stone facade, steeply angled roof and belltower, with a neatly trimmed lawn and shrubs.
    Bois D’Arc United Methodist Church
    Photo by John Schmalzbauer
    A simple white church exterior.
    Yeakley Chapel
    Photo by John Schmalzbauer

    I hear both strains of Ozarks religion in the rural Methodist churches pastored by my spouse, Susan Schmalzbauer. Founded after a schoolhouse revival in the 1880s, rural Greene County’s Bois D’Arc United Methodist Church has been a place of religious tolerance and inclusiveness in a time of polarization, declaring that “all are welcome and ALL MEANS ALL.” The church also serves a delicious gooseberry pie. Ministering to both body and soul, Bois D’Arc (pronounced bo-dark) sponsored a vaccine clinic during the COVID-19 pandemic and maintains a “little free pantry.” Like the French expression from which it takes its name, referring to the arc of the bows Native people fashioned from Osage orange trees, the church is both rooted and cosmopolitan, nurturing children who have grown up to work in Afghanistan and Australia.

    A few miles down the road, Yeakley Chapel began its life in the smoldering ashes of the Civil War. Named after a Methodist and Quaker family with ties to Tennessee abolitionism, Yeakley has hosted 4-H meetings of local youth and a 1926 discussion of “How the Rural Economic Struggle Touches the Church.” Its 1852 cemetery includes both veterans of frontier revivalism and the granddaughter of a Syrian Lebanese immigrant. The oldest church standing on Greene County, Missouri’s stretch of Route 66, its 1887 building sits at the crossroads of American religious life.

    An apt metaphor for the Ozarks writ large, the image of a crossroads captures both the local and the cosmopolitan dimensions of a changing religious landscape. Before it is anything else, the region is a crossroads.

    John Schmalzbauer is professor and Blanche Gorman Strong Chair in Protestant Studies in the Department of Languages, Cultures and Religions at Missouri State University. A sociologist by training, he conducts research on religion in American intellectual life and popular culture. He chaired the Ozarks program’s Religion and Spirituality Advisory Committee.

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